What’s So Magical About an Oversized iPhone? Plenty—And There’s More to Come

1/29/10Follow @wroush

The Apple iPad is one of the most eagerly anticipated computing devices in history. With all the heat and hype that preceded Wednesday’s public debut of the device, it was inevitable that the backlash from skeptical bloggers and Twitterers would be equally ferocious. Still, even after you filter out all the bozos who keep repeating “It’s just a giant iPhone,” or who dismiss all Apple customers as fey elitists, or who have a sophomoric fascination with the hygienic overtones of the name “iPad,” you’re still left with a surprising number of critics who seem inconsolably disappointed over inconsequential details like the width of the iPad’s bezel, or whether the device has USB ports, or Flash, or multitasking, or cameras, or windshield wipers.

These cranky commentators are missing the point. They can’t see the screen for the stuff around its edges, as it were. There was never any chance that Version 1 of the iPad would have all of the features that fanboys want, or even all of the features that Apple wants. (More on that in a moment.) But it’s already got the three things that really count: 1) a huge touchscreen, 2) an operating system designed around multitouch gestures, and 3) a development kit that will allow thousands of software builders to do amazing things with #1 and #2.

Apple iPadAmidst the dozens of iPad reviews I’ve read this week, two sentences have struck me as particularly insightful. One was from David Pogue, writing for his New York Times blog: “Like the iPhone, the iPad is really a vessel, a tool, a 1.5-pound sack of potential.” The other was from writer and blogger Rory Marinich: “The product is, simply put, a magical screen that can do anything you ever want it to, no matter what that is.”

“Magical” is a word so often abused by technology marketers that someone should call Amnesty International. It’s the word Apple itself is using in its central pitch for the iPad: Our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price. It’s practically the first word out of designer Jonathan Ives’ mouth in Apple’s propaganda video for the iPad.

Nonetheless, I think it’s a pretty good word for the feeling I got the first time I played with an iPhone. The fact that the phone really did all the things that I had seen it doing in the TV commercials astonished me. I couldn’t believe that the little icons on the home screen could be so bright and crisp; that they could so instantly respond to my touch; that I could flick my way through a photo album or zoom in on a picture simply by spreading my thumb and index finger.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d read about the basics of capacitive sensors and multitouch interfaces, so I didn’t think anything supernatural was going on. In fact, I violently disagree with Ives’ argument, in the Apple video, that something has to “exceed your ability to understand how it works” before it can seem magical. What impressed me was that Apple had brought the technologies together in such a beautiful, graceful, and convincing way, and made the package affordable to so many consumers (42 million so far).

But the thunderbolt that was the iPhone hit three whole years ago. We grow jaded quickly nowadays. As comedian Louis C.K. remarked so accurately to Conan O’Brian, “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” (C.K. continued with an obvious-but-stunning-when-you-really-think-about-it reminder for airline passengers: “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky.” Believe me, that’s on my mind every time I fly.)

So yes, the iPad is a big honkin’ iPhone (or iPod Touch, more precisely, since it won’t actually function as a cell phone). But that’s exactly why it’s amazing. The iPhone gave us a taste of what multitouch can do, and broke open the first small fissure in the WIMP paradigm (for Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing device)—the apex of user interfaces since the 1970s. But on a phone’s little screen, you don’t have enough runway to make really intricate or dramatic touch gestures. On the larger screen of the iPad—45.2 square inches, by my calculations, compared to the iPhone’s 5.9 square inches—multitouch will find much fuller expression, and the fissure will become a serious crack.

It’s so much easier to manipulate graphical content through touch that even three-year-olds understand the iPhone. And the multitouch-intensive applications that Apple showed off at this week’s iPad event, like the photo album and the Brushes drawing app, provided only a faint preview of the types of touch-driven apps that programmers will brainstorm over the coming months. If recent history is any indication, we should plan on being amazed.

After all, who could have foreseen back in 2007 that developers would come up with iPhone apps like Panolab, in which multitouch gestures are used to rotate and align multiple photos into huge panoramas and collages, or Ocarina, which makes the iPhone into a four-holed flute, or Autodesk’s Fluid, which lets you draw swirling smoke patterns on your screen? Apple, which knows a good thing when it sees it, has already added multitouch support to the glass trackpads on the latest MacBook laptops, and now it has designers and illustrators and even its own competitors drooling publicly over the iPad. My guess is that within a few years, we’ll be wondering why all personal computers don’t work this way.

Now, it’s true that Apple could have loaded more features into the iPad 1.0. Every tech person I’ve spoken with in the past couple of days has expressed surprise over one omission or another—for example, the absence of a front or back camera. (The word I’m hearing is that this was a concession to AT&T, which doesn’t want users clogging its already-strained data network by uploading lots of high-resolution pictures or videos or running iChat all day long.)

But I can answer all of the missing-feature complaints with a single word: Pro. You can bet your iFanny that sometime in 2011, Apple will introduce the iPad Pro, and that it will have cameras, more memory, a faster processor, and just enough other sexy features to get diehard fans to put their first-generation iPads on eBay and re-up.

When I laid out this prediction to Chuck Goldman, the founder and CEO of Boston-based iPhone development house Apperian, his reaction was, “Of course. That’s what Apple always does, so why would this product be anything different?” He should know—he spent eight years inside Apple, running the professional services division, and was actually in meetings at Apple in Cupertino when I first reached him.

With so much competition in the computer business these days, Goldman says, Apple is forced to get products to market faster and faster, which means they have to lock in each machine’s feature set before the technology is fully baked. “I’m sure that Steve’s edict for the iPad was that, ‘This thing absolutely has to launch in January,’” Goldman told me. “There are 400 things that Apple wants to do, but they can only do four in the time allowed, so they have got to decide what feature set is going to ship with Version 1. And they usually do a pretty good of getting a product to market with enough features for the Apple fanboys and the early adopters to want the thing. But you have to know that someone in Cupertino has got the roadmap for this product pretty much planned out. What they do is, they listen to customers, and they are really good at aggregating that customer feedback and working it into the roadmap, and that’s how they create versions 2 and 3 and 4 and 5.”

But Apple has already gathered the most important piece of customer feedback: that people love touch-based computing. That’s why the 2nd-generation iPod (the one where the capacitive track wheel replaced the moving scroll wheel) eventually evolved into the iPhone, and that’s why the iPhone has now evolved into the iPad. And no matter how many new features the company adds to the iPad in the future, that magical screen will still have the starring role.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

  • Dave Lukas

    I don’t think anyone doubts, from a product design/engineering standpoint, that the iPad will be what it purports to be. Apple clearly understands successful design, and does a good job of learning from past products.

    But what I really question is whether there is a market segment to be squeezed in between touch-screen smartphones and notebooks, especially at a price point approaching that of the latter (plus $30/mo for unlimited data). Since this is a first-of-its-kind device, there’s not a lot of market data to go on, so Apple is clearly banking on it’s brand strength and product design to create this market…I’m not optimistic though.

    DL

  • http://MSprague.com Mark Sprague

    In spite of all the silly nits, version 1.0 of the iPad looks very good. There are tens of thousands of developers who are off to the races. If DVD-HD and CD-I (remember this?) had this kind of support they may well have been successful platforms. By the time the next version of iPad comes out we will all be ooohhhing over the thousands of clever apps that are available. Give Apple their due – they deserve it.

  • Green Guy

    Wade,

    I’m with you all the way except for the apps side. With Apple as a filter for apps there will never be a thousand flowers blooming. Until there are self hosted development tools and the ability to share and sell apps unfettered by a intermediary you will never see any hardware reach its full potential. Shiny hardware does not a revolution make. Until you get apps that no one expected you’ve only created a fancy sandbox.

  • Pingback: Here Are 6 Features Apple Should Include in the iPad 2 | Geek Android